Confident after two victories against the Portland Trail Blazers over this past weekend, Memphis Grizzlies guard Dillon Brooks declared that there wouldn’t be any “letdown” in tonight’s Round 3. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum made sure his declaration proved true — just not in the way he’d have anticipated. The star guards opened the first half in Playoffs Mode with their feet never truly “letting down” from the gas pedal on their way to a 130-109 victory.
McCollum paved the path with a rhythmic 26-point performance on just 15 shots. Lillard added 23, as Portland jumped out to a lead that ballooned to as much as 33 in the first half. They received ample scoring help in the form of Norman Powell (24), Carmelo Anthony (18), and Jusuf Nurkic (15), earning some “getback” in one of the NBA’s chippiest recent rivalries. More importantly, they moved to just 1⁄2 of a game back of Dallas for the all-important No. 6 seed.
Stay tuned for Dave Deckard’s extended recap. In the meantime, here are a few quarter-for-quarter thoughts.
Over their last four meetings, Memphis and Portland split with two each, and miraculously played to a perfectly neutral zero net rating. So, it comes as no surprise that the opening part of the first quarter was nip-and-tuck. With time, though, it became evident that Memphis was in for “one of those nights,” as the Blazers’ competitive star backcourt stepped up to the challenge. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum combined for 21 points on 8-of-11 from the field and three 3-pointers.
The more often Memphis allowed Lillard to get to the center of the 3-point arc and into his pull-up, or sneak into a passing lane and get out in transition, the more likely he was to add to his legend. Lillard was uber-aggressive — losing to the same team twice in one week will do that to you — searching for his shot, and finally finding his lift. Portland’s No. 1 ranked first-quarter offense had an Orlando bubble vibe with Anthony and Powell providing safety valves on Lillard’s penetrations.
Familiarity was the name of the game, with how often these two teams have competed. Portland struggled mightily in defending Jonas Valanciunas, but the trade-off was that they bottled up Ja Morant in pick-and-roll and as well as in transition. (If you witnessed this weekend’s games, you know how miraculous this is). As a result, Portland led 38-23.
You likely weren’t expecting to cover this on tonight’s bingo card: the Grizzlies followed the familiar strategy of blitzing on Portland’s pick-and-rolls ... except tonight’s victim wasn’t Lillard. Memphis sent two players at McCollum, which gave Portland a 4-on-3 advantage with Lillard on the floor.
Odds are, you know how that story ended. Portland scored effortlessly, unselfishly making the extra pass, pushing the pace, using Anthony as a pick-and-pop threat, a beautiful hammer screen type set for McCollum, and benefitted from (perhaps) the best half to date of Norman Powell’s Blazers tenure.
It was essentially a WWF Royal Rumble-type game: every Blazer involved had their “moment” in the spotlight. By halftime, Memphis was effectively thrown head first over the ropes. But don’t take my word for it. Consider the score at intermission: Blazers, 74; Grizzlies, 46.
If you weren’t paying attention, Wednesday night’s third quarter might have looked like a DVR malfunction. Memphis sought to cut the head off of Portland’s offensive snake, doubling Lillard on their ball screen attempts. That opened up short roll opportunities for Nurkic time-and-time again. And again, for good measure. The Grizzlies’ commentator feed said it best: Memphis is going to see the 7-foot Bosnian Beast in tonight’s nightmares.
One of the benefits that came with Portland’s uncharacteristically big lead is that it allowed them to tinker with sets, such as running a zone defense on occasion. There were times where it appeared Memphis was threatening a comeback — Ja Morant had a fun weakside block and Jaren Jackson Jr. found a rhythm — but Portland kept them at arm’s reach with key run-stopping shots, granting them a 102-83 advantage.
When Norman Powell begins negotiations for a new contract this summer, his agent would be wise to make sure this game is playing on loop. From demoralizing over-the-shoulder steals to difficult fast break finishes, Powell pieced together his most complete game in a Blazers uniform.
The game was all but decided midway through, but where it lacked in suspense, it made it for in satisfaction. Portland produced a 48-minute game, with a few fadeaways from Anthony and some hustle plays from Rondae Hollis-Jefferson serving as the exclamation point. Portland got to utilize a 13-man rotation in tonight’s game, almost always a positive sign.
Stay tuned for Dave Deckard’s extended recap.
Portland continues their six-game roadie on Saturday against the Brooklyn Nets at 5:00 PT.